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Howler Magazine: After Four Years The Distinctive Magazine About Soccer Is Still Kicking & Scoring With Its Audience – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Founder/Editor George Quraishi…

November 29, 2016

“The thought of starting just a website and the monetary factors of that felt very uncertain to me. From day one, I didn’t see a way to do what we wanted to do with that model. What I’m trying to say is that it was half a business hunch and half a nostalgia play that led us to do it in print. And I think that it’s worked out from what I’ve seen since we launched. I was in London recently at Jeremy Leslie’s magCulture, and I saw all of these wonderful-looking magazines. And none of them, including Howler, should probably even exist. They’re all really heartfelt attempts by people who want to do and say something that’s important to them, but there is no spreadsheet that’s going to say that this is a great business. You have to be a bit of a crazy dreamer to try and do it.” George Quraishi

howlerSince 2012 there has been a voice on newsstands “howling” the joys and passions of soccer, and one that is inimitable in its style and stance on creativity and storytelling. That magazine is Howler. And the powers-that-be behind the brand are dedicated professionals that know a thing or two about magazines and magazine design.

Mark Kirby and George Quraishi, two of the original founders of the magazine, are former editors at GQ, Condé Nast Portfolio, National Geographic Adventure, and HarperCollins Publishers. Both are soccer fans, but more importantly they’re all fans of great magazines that are prone to providing audiences with great artwork, great content and even greater connections with the people the magazines serve.

I spoke with George recently and we talked about Howler, where it has been, where it’s at, and also where it’s headed. The magazine was first funded by one of the earlier Kickstarter campaigns and is proving that passion, fortitude and a little bit of crazy can go a long way when you’re finding your footing on the path to launching a great magazine.

So, pull out your favorite chair, grab your soccer gear and join Mr. Magazine™ as he picks the brain of a man who loves the art of storytelling and a good game of soccer, George Quraishi, Founder & Editor, Howler magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

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On the genesis of Howler: There are four founders, and it was a group that in a sense I guess, I brought together. Mark Kirby was my coeditor, and he and I; we never worked together, but he offered me an internship at National Geographic Adventure when I was still in college. And then the art directors for Howler were the art directors that I had worked with at Condé Nast’s Portfolio after I finished up at National Geographic, and so the four of us came together to make Howler. And then we launched it on Kickstarter as a project in June, 2012. And we funded it, and it was very exciting. Then we had a few months to actually finalize the issue and it came out in October, 2012. So, that was the timeline.

On funding Howler through the crowdsourcing platform of Kickstarter: I have to say that my inspiration for the magazine was because I saw a friend of mine do a very similar thing. My friend Jamin Warren was an arts and entertainment reporter at the Wall Street Journal who loved videogames and he quit his job at the Journal and he did a Kickstarter project to fund a print magazine about videogames called Kill Screen that still exists, which was redesigned and relaunched. And he came to Kickstarter even earlier than we did, when it was a much smaller ecosystem.

On why he thinks there is an audience for a soccer magazine in the States when the sport isn’t as popular here as it is in places like Europe: You’re right; soccer in the U.S. isn’t as mature as an industry as it is overseas. It’s not as mature as other American sports, but it’s not as mature globally either as it is in countries like South America and Europe. But rather than putting us off, that was the opportunity that we saw. There are plenty of people here who love and follow the game, but we weren’t seeing the type of coverage that we as readers and fans wanted to see.

On any stumbling blocks that he’s had to face and how he overcame them: It has been a constant learning experience. I can only speak for myself, but I left college and I went abroad to teach English for a year in South Korea and I came back and worked as a writer and an editor at magazines and at HarperCollins Publishers in New York City. But nothing that I did prepared me for entrepreneurship or managing a “staff” of people. And those have been things that I’ve had to try and learn how to do.

On how he moved from the idea maker to the idea executioner: You go from having an idea for a magazine and then the questions become how do you found it; how do you build an audience for it; and then how do you sustain it? And those are all related questions. A lot of it was intuition and step-by-step decision-making, as opposed to a grand master plan, such as in four years we’d like to be where we are.

On the most pleasant moment he’s had throughout this experience: That’s a good question. We’ve been lucky; there are several to choose from. I would probably say one of the most gratifying moments happened two years ago when Longform Podcast had a contest. And I vaguely knew the guys who did it, but I wasn’t aware of the contest. They asked their readers what was their favorite all-time soccer story and a Howler story beat out several others. One I believe from The New York Times and one from ESPN, and a couple of others. And a Howler story actually won.

On whether he feels the Howler brand could have accomplished as much as it has without the print component: That’s another good question and something that we considered from the very beginning. Like I said before, when we went public and launched with Kickstarter, we really thought about this. We asked a lot of people that we knew for their advice and people in the soccer business. And a pretty common question that we heard from people was why were we making a print magazine? It needed to be online. This was in 2012. Our thinking and my hunch was that while this might be kind of crazy, for this to be viable and for us to deliver the kind of journalism and artwork; to make the kind of magazine that I wanted to make, there had to be a model where the reader was supporting what we’re doing.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-7-34-08-pmOn what his future expectations are for Howler: I would say that right now my goals are to diversify the ways to make money. The ways now are reader, advertising, which is a small, but healthy chunk of how we make money, and the marketing work that we do for third parties. They come to us; brands like Gatorade and Nike, especially in the early days when I quit my job, that was a big help so that I didn’t go homeless.

On anything else he’d like to add: Our website has been getting a lot of attention lately. We just relaunched our website and we changed the name from howlermagazine.com to whatahowler.com. Whatahowler is our official handle for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our attempt there was to realign the website as its own digital property and shift it a little bit away from being just a place where people go because we’ve been talking about the print magazine. And we’ve partnered with a really fantastic blog that predates Howler by a few years; it’s called Dirty Tackle. It was acquired by Yahoo in, I believe, 2009, and it had a good five year run with Yahoo before regaining its independence, so now whatahowler.com and Dirty Tackle cohabitate.

On having no advertising on Howler’s website: The types of advertising that we could get, with the page views and the readers and the metrics that we have for this small website, we would be making pennies really. The digital advertising game is really for websites that can scale or have scale and that have extremely large numbers.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up at his house unexpectedly one evening: My wife comes home, she’s doing her Ph.D. in education right now; she’s exhausted, so she’s sitting on the couch working and I’m next to her with our dog. And I’m reading or working myself, or doing something that needs doing, because there is always something.

On what keeps him up at night: Like anyone who does what I do, I think, just thinking about where media is going and can we, in some small way, latch onto some of these trends? That’s why we’ve placed some of our bets on podcasting as a low cost, but highly personal way to reach our audience. The media landscape is so exciting and I think that’s where a lot of the big players present a real challenge to us. For a company our size, it also presents real opportunity. Not only is it harder and harder to reach the mass audience, but you don’t necessarily have to in order to be a viable business.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with George Quraishi, Founder/Editor, Howler Magazine.

Samir Husni: You’re getting ready to celebrate four years of Howler; can you recreate the launch of Howler? I know that you had other founders, but your name was the name associated with the magazine from the very beginning. Tell me about the genesis of Howler.

3566138George Quraishi: There are four founders, and it was a group that in a sense I guess, I brought together. Mark Kirby was my coeditor, and he and I; we never worked together, but he offered me an internship at National Geographic Adventure when I was still in college. By the time I took it, he had moved on to GQ. So, he and I just stayed in touch and started playing soccer together.

And then the art directors for Howler were the art directors that I had worked with at Condé Nast’s Portfolio after I finished up at National Geographic, and so the four of us came together to make Howler. We did a lot of work in the beginning before we ever took it to the public, to figure out what the magazine would look like, sound like, who would be writing for it, and structurally just putting together that first issue.

And then we launched it on Kickstarter as a project in June, 2012. And we funded it, and it was very exciting. Then we had a few months to actually finalize the issue and it came out in October, 2012. So, that was the timeline.

Samir Husni: And I think you may have been one of the earlier crowdsourcing entities, because now it is becoming the norm rather than the exception. If someone has an idea for a magazine, they simply go to Kickstarter.

George Quraishi: I have to say that my inspiration for the magazine was because I saw a friend of mine do a very similar thing. My friend Jamin Warren was an arts and entertainment reporter at the Wall Street Journal who loved videogames and he quit his job at the Journal and he did a Kickstarter project to fund a print magazine about videogames called Kill Screen that still exists, which was redesigned and relaunched. And he came to Kickstarter even earlier than we did, when it was a much smaller ecosystem.

I think we had a much easier time fundraising Howler, because there was just more people familiar with the platform and I’m sure that today the audience for Kickstarter has grown and the familiarity with it has become so much more prevalent that people who are funding through Kickstarter now would probably look back at our campaign and be able to tell it was quite a while ago. (Laughs) But it’s such a wonderful platform.

Samir Husni: Soccer is getting bigger and bigger in the United States, but it’s still not as popular as it is overseas. When you hear the word football there, you know that people are referring to soccer. Why did you think there was an audience in the States for an international soccer magazine when you launched Howler? And why did you decide to publish it in its oversized format and with all of the stunning illustrations?

George Quraishi: You’re right; soccer in the U.S. isn’t as mature as an industry as it is overseas. It’s not as mature as other American sports, but it’s not as mature globally either as it is in countries like South America and Europe. But rather than putting us off, that was the opportunity that we saw. There are plenty of people here who love and follow the game, but we weren’t seeing the type of coverage that we as readers and fans wanted to see.

And I would say there are so many things you can look at to measure soccer’s growth and the maturity of the game just in the last couple of years, but one that I would point to and that I feel a bit of pride, in terms of helping in some small way to push along, is the fact that by the 4th or 5th issue of Howler I began to see more coverage of the game the way we aspire to do it in the major and more established publications.

You’re seeing more illustrations such as Howler uses; you’re seeing people realize that there’s an audience for long soccer stories. Just recently ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight site posted a new podcast on their Hot Takedown about a guy named Charles Reep, who was sort of the father of soccer analytics. And when I heard about it I knew that it sounded like an episode of Howler Radio, which is a podcast that we started a few years ago. Now, I would never take credit for any of these things (Laughs), but it’s been very encouraging to see the type of stories that I wanted to see created and that gave us the impotence to start Howler in the first place, become more prevalent in the culture at large. I don’t know if it’s our influence or just a correlation, but I just think that it’s fantastic to see.

Samir Husni: Have you had any stumbling blocks along your journey and if so, how did you overcome them?

George Quraishi: It has been a constant learning experience. I can only speak for myself, but I left college and I went abroad to teach English for a year in South Korea and I came back and worked as a writer and an editor at magazines and at HarperCollins Publishers in New York City. But nothing that I did prepared me for entrepreneurship or managing a “staff” of people. And those have been things that I’ve had to try and learn how to do. And we do have a large team now of what we call semi-professionals, most people do have other jobs, but they work on Howler as well; our editors and our copy editors; our creative director and our editorial assistants, and our podcast producers. So, it’s quite a large team.

Along the way there have certainly been challenges, in terms of just the basic tasks of running a business that I think anyone who starts a small organization has to learn how to do. Cash flow and reconciling the books; all of these foreign processes that are totally unfamiliar to someone who enjoys sitting down and editing and working with good stories. I have had to learn how to do all of that. So, yes, there have been quite a few challenges along the way.

Samir Husni: You were a journalist before you became a businessperson. As someone who is passionate about creative ideas and the subject matter of Howler, how did you move from the idea maker to the idea executioner?

George Quraishi: You go from having an idea for a magazine and then the questions become how do you found it; how do you build an audience for it; and then how do you sustain it? And those are all related questions. A lot of it was intuition and step-by-step decision-making, as opposed to a grand master plan, such as in four years we’d like to be where we are.

We started with the Kickstarter fund, which was around $70,001; something like that. And that was our capital. We’ve never taken on investors and we’ve never been in the red for longer than maybe a day. Overall, we’ve been very fortunate to have had a print magazine startup that has been at most times at least a break even proposition. And the magazine business is all about scale, and for us it’s about trying to grow the audience, which we’ve done by, up to this point, basically social media and by earned media. We were fortunate in the early days to get great reviews from some other much larger publications. We’ve built our audience via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and just by really focusing on reaching our small audience. We have a small, but very passionate audience. And I think that what we’ve done and what was smart on our part was really focusing on what we knew that audience wanted, instead of trying to be all things to all soccer fans.

Samir Husni: Are you doing this full-time now?

George Quraishi: Yes, I quit my job as soon as we funded the Kickstarter actually. So, for the past four years I’ve done this full-time.

Samir Husni: What would you consider the most pleasant moment throughout this experience?

George Quraishi: That’s a good question. We’ve been lucky; there are several to choose from. I would probably say one of the most gratifying moments happened two years ago when Longform Podcast had a contest. And I vaguely knew the guys who did it, but I wasn’t aware of the contest. They asked their readers what was their favorite all-time soccer story and a Howler story beat out several others. One I believe from The New York Times and one from ESPN, and a couple of others. And a Howler story actually won.

And it was a story from readers and I wasn’t surprised that that was a popular story, but the fact that a Howler story had penetrated the consciousness of this other audience, the Longform audience, was kind of amazing to me. And it was a wonderful feeling. It felt good just to be in the same conversation with these other venerable publications and to actually beat them out in some small way. I just wanted to pump my fist in the air and shout, “Yeah!”

Samir Husni: Do you think that you could have accomplished what you have with Howler without the print component?

George Quraishi: That’s another good question and something that we considered from the very beginning. Like I said before, when we went public and launched with Kickstarter, we really thought about this. We asked a lot of people that we knew for their advice and people in the soccer business. And a pretty common question that we heard from people was why were we making a print magazine? It needed to be online. This was in 2012.

Our thinking and my hunch was that while this might be kind of crazy, for this to be viable and for us to deliver the kind of journalism and artwork; to make the kind of magazine that I wanted to make, there had to be a model where the reader was supporting what we’re doing.

The thought of starting just a website and the monetary factors of that felt very uncertain to me. From day one, I didn’t see a way to do what we wanted to do with that model. What I’m trying to say is that it was half a business hunch and half a nostalgia play that led us to do it in print. And I think that it’s worked out from what I’ve seen since we launched.

I was in London recently at Jeremy Leslie’s magCulture, and I saw all of these wonderful-looking magazines. And none of them, including Howler, should probably even exist. They’re all really heartfelt attempts by people who want to do and say something that’s important to them, but there is no spreadsheet that’s going to say that this is a great business. You have to be a bit of a crazy dreamer to try and do it.

But I think that what we’ve learned is that people who recognize that and who love these magazines are willing to support them. It’s not easy, but finding that audience and seeing that support makes it totally doable and necessary.

Samir Husni: I’ve always said that there is a sense of community when you’re holding a print magazine, it’s like your membership card and if you’re not willing to pay for that membership, you can’t be in the club. I was in New York recently and picked up some new magazine and the cover prices were anywhere from $25 to $34.

George Quraishi: Yes, and you know, Samir, when I was in New York and looking around at new magazines, I noticed that most of the covers were Issue #1, Issue #2, Issue #3; there were definitely a few that were more mature, but a lot of them were very young and to me that just validated the fact that while this business is tough and not easy to sustain on the financial side for a new magazine; I really admire the people who try. I know how difficult it is and seeing that people still believe in print and are willing to pay for quality work is really heartening.

Samir Husni: If we talk again in two years, what would you hope to tell me that Howler has accomplished? What are your expectations?

George Quraishi: I would say that right now my goals are to diversify the ways to make money. The ways now are reader, advertising, which is a small, but healthy chunk of how we make money, and the marketing work that we do for third parties. They come to us; brands like Gatorade and Nike, especially in the early days when I quit my job, that was a big help so that I didn’t go homeless.

Right now we’re looking at other ways. We’ve launched our Podcast and we’re in the process of trying to make them user-supported; we’re exploring a few other things that refocus our efforts and attention on the audience we already have, while trying to grow that audience, but not at the expense of the people who are already paying attention to us.

For instance, could we go on any more trips, which might be something that we could do; it’s a great way to connect with readers, but also explore interesting things with soccer and also gain experience, rather than a product. Could that become a part of our business? I’m exploring things like that and hopefully in a couple of years I’ll have good news to report. We’ve tried to make the business a little more stable by not relying on one thing.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-7-34-22-pmGeorge Quraishi: Our website has been getting a lot of attention lately. We just relaunched our website and we changed the name from howlermagazine.com to whatahowler.com. Whatahowler is our official handle for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our attempt there was to realign the website as its own digital property and shift it a little bit away from being just a place where people go because we’ve been talking about the print magazine. And we’ve partnered with a really fantastic blog that predates Howler by a few years; it’s called Dirty Tackle. It was acquired by Yahoo in, I believe, 2009, and it had a good five year run with Yahoo before regaining its independence, so now whatahowler.com and Dirty Tackle cohabitate.

This is our first move in trying to bring in other voices, those other soccer blogs that I love, but like Howler online, find it difficult to reach a big enough audience to make a living off of it. My thoughts were to put our readers together, Howler’s and Dirty Tackle’s, and maybe have a more meaningful share of the soccer world’s attention.

We moved the website from Word Press.com to Medium.com, which is a very exciting platform because it’s half CMS and half social network. We’ve already seen a really cool uptick in the enthusiasm of our readers to come and participate on our website in a way that we haven’t seen before. They’re leaving comments and highlighting things they like and part of that is due to just the tools that Medium gives them. And certainly the marriage of Dirty Tackle and Howler has helped. Bringing those readers together in one voice has been great.

Samir Husni: I see that there is no advertising on the website. Is that intentional?

George Quraishi: This is sort of a strategy question for us. The types of advertising that we could get, with the page views and the readers and the metrics that we have for this small website, we would be making pennies really. The digital advertising game is really for websites that can scale or have scale and that have extremely large numbers.

My theory is that any monetary benefit that we would get from serving up those ads would be very, very small compared to the inconvenience and the bad experience that we would be providing to readers when we had those ads. It’s actually not even a choice on the Medium site now to serve up those ads, but it was our choice to move to a platform that didn’t. It is such a vastly better experience for our users that I don’t miss seeing those little ads being served on our website. They weren’t doing much for us anyway and I think that it really aligns with our strategy to really double down on the idea that our users and our readers and our listeners are going to support Howler in more ways than just buying the magazine.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly one evening at your home after work, what would I find you doing: reading a magazine; reading your iPad; watching a little soccer on television; or something else?

George Quraishi: My wife comes home, she’s doing her Ph.D. in education right now; she’s exhausted, so she’s sitting on the couch working and I’m next to her with our dog. And I’m reading or working myself, or doing something that needs doing, because there is always something.

But I’ve been really involved with TV shows like “Mr. Robot” and I’ve reached the point where I feel like watching one of these TV shows is as satisfying as reading a great book. So, that’s become part of my evenings too.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

George Quraishi: Like anyone who does what I do, I think, just thinking about where media is going and can we, in some small way, latch onto some of these trends? That’s why we’ve placed some of our bets on podcasting as a low cost, but highly personal way to reach our audience. The media landscape is so exciting and I think that’s where a lot of the big players present a real challenge to us. For a company our size, it also presents real opportunity. Not only is it harder and harder to reach the mass audience, but you don’t necessarily have to in order to be a viable business. And when I say viable, I’m leaning more towards doing what we do, rather than making the money that we make. As long as we can pay for the work that we do and keep writers and editors in print and keep them doing what they love; I’m extremely satisfied with that.

When I think about running Howler and what that gets for us as a part of the soccer culture, it’s stories. Ultimately, we’re trying to maintain that positive balance until the next issue.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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